FORT MEADE, Md. — In the suburbs edged by woods midway between Baltimore and the nation's capital, residents long joked that the government spy shop next door was so ultra-secretive its initials stood for "No Such Agency." But when Edward Snowden grew up here, the National Security Agency's looming presence was both a very visible and accepted part of everyday life.
When Snowden —the 29-year-old intelligence contractor whose leak of top-secret documents has exposed sweeping government surveillance programs — went to Arundel High School, the agency regularly sent employees from its nearby black-glass headquarters to tutor struggling math students.
When Snowden went on to Anne Arundel Community College in the spring of 1999 after leaving high school halfway through his sophomore year, he arrived on a campus developing a specialty in cybersecurity training for future employees of the NSA and Department of Defense, though, according to the records, he never took such a class.
And when Snowden joined friends in his late teens to edit a website built around a shared interest in Japanese animation, they chartered the venture from an apartment in military housing at Fort George G. Meade, the 8-square-mile installation that houses the NSA center dubbed the Puzzle Palace and calls itself the "nation's pre-eminent center for information, intelligence and cyber."
In this setting, it's easy to see how the young Snowden was exposed to the notion of spycraft as a career, first with the Central Intelligence Agency and later as a systems analyst for two companies under contract to the NSA. But details of his early life — in the agency's shadows and with both parents working for other branches of the federal government — only magnify the contradictions inherent in Snowden's decision to become a leaker.
What, after all, did he think he was getting into when he signed up to work for the nation's espionage agencies? And what specifically triggered a "crisis of conscience" — as described by a friend who knew him when he worked for the CIA — so profound that it convinced him to betray the secrets he was sworn to keep?
The latter is a question that even Snowden, in interviews since his disclosures, has answered piecemeal, describing his decisions as the same ones any thoughtful person would make if put in his position.
"I'm no different from anybody else," he said in a video interview with The Guardian, seated with his back to a mirror in what appears to be a Hong Kong hotel room, the tropical sunlight filtering through a curtained window. "I don't have special skills. I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes: This is not our place to decide. The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong."
Posts to online blogs and forums, public records and interviews with Snowden's neighbors, teachers and acquaintances reveal someone who prized the American ideal of personal freedom but became disenchanted with the way government secretly operates in the name of national security.
Those who knew him describe him as introspective, but seem puzzled by where the mindset led him.
"He's very nice, shy, reserved," Jonathan Mills, the father of Snowden's longtime girlfriend, told The Associated Press outside his home in Laurel, Md. "He's always had strong convictions of right and wrong, and it kind of makes sense, but still, a shock."
Snowden, who was born in 1983, spent his early years in Elizabeth City, N.C., before his family moved to the Maryland suburbs when he was 9. His father, Lonnie, was a warrant officer for the U.S. Coast Guard, since retired. His mother, Elizabeth, who goes by Wendy, went to work for the U.S. District Court in Maryland in 1998 and is now its chief deputy of administration and information technology. An older sister, Jessica, is a lawyer working as a research associate for the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, according to LinkedIn.
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